Here in the age of the Google search it sometimes seems as if any information anywhere is available instantly after entering a few search terms and a mouse click or two. And for the most part it is. That is unless what you want is a document in an archive or a special collection somewhere. There is no database for those documents. If you’ve ever done archival research you know that first you have to locate the library, historical society or archive where the information you are looking for might be located. Then you have to travel to the archive. When you get there you will be presented with boxes or folders of documents which are sometimes handwritten and illegible. Organization is of the most general sort only, often all documents for a particular period of time, some important most irrelevant to what you are seeking. It often feels like looking for a needle in a haystack.
The reason the process is so difficult is that scholars and archivists have been unable to transcribe and publish the huge volume of documents history has left us. That may be about to change.
Scholars tasked with transcribing troves of historical documents have decided to seek help through crowd sourcing.
University College London has been transcribing the papers of Enlightenment Philosopher Jeremy Bentham for 50 years and have completed less than have of the documents in its possession. The New York Times reports that, “Starting this fall, the editors have leveraged, if not the wisdom of the crowd, then at least its fingers, inviting anyone — yes, that means you — to help transcribe some of the 40,000 unpublished manuscripts from University College’s collection that have been scanned and put online.”
The work of volunteers will be corrected by editors and eventually published.
Sharon Leon of George Mason University is working on a project to publish 55,000 War Department documents destroyed when the British burned the capitol during the War of 1812. To further the project she has received a National Endowment for the Humanities grant to create a digital tool that any library or archive could make available to enlist public assistance in transcribing documents.
Max J. Evans, the former executive director of the National Historical Publications and Records Commission applauds the effort. “This way, at least, the papers of the founding fathers and others, despite being tough to read and unsearchable, would not be ‘held up in these scholarly editing offices for years and years, and not only available to a select group of scholars,’” he told the Times.
The road to crowd sourced document transcription will not be without bumps. Daniel Stowell, the director and editor of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln tried hiring non-academic transcribers and discontinued the practice because “we were spending more time and money correcting them as creating them from scratch.”
“We’re not looking for perfect,” Ms. Leon of George Mason said of crowd-sourced transcription. “We’re looking for progressive improvement, which is a completely different goal from someone who is creating a letter-press edition.”
While I won’t hold my breath waiting for every document I may ever need to examine to be available on my office computer, there may come a day when it does take only a Google search to locate virtually anything a researcher might need.
As a researcher who has spent many hours digging through boxes of miscellaneous paper I can only say I hope it’s soon.
Click here to read the New York Times article “Scholars Recruit Public for Project.”